Opinions
Alastair Starke

The medicine of music: "Take two CDs and call me in the morning"

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What if you could trade in Vicodin for Vivaldi or Ritalin for Radiohead? Imagine if you could generate healing through music, rather than modern medicines. The time to imagine has come and gone. The future of healing is here and it has made initiative of imagination, but if the use of music is a remedy for physical and psychological ills, then the way of the future is paved on the octaves of the past.

The Pythagoreans used the strings of the lyre and an antiquated notion of time signature to develop theoretical structures and metaphors of balance and harmony. As a mouthpiece for Socrates and song, even Plato found a place for music in the Republic.

After centuries of shunning alternative therapies in favour of more conventional scientific approaches to medicine, the West may well be taking a cue from its own history as researchers at Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburgh, Austria work to develop prescriptive pieces and musical therapies for a wide range of diagnoses.

Consultations with famed musicians notwithstanding, researchers have guarded the anonymity of the composers of the original pieces of music being developed specifically for these studies. The director of the program of Music and Medicine at Paracelsus, Vera Brandes, brands herself as the first musical pharmacologist and trusts firmly in analysis and anecdote alike. Brandes suffered a devastating spinal injury and was delivered a dismal prognosis, but miraculously recovered, which she credited to the elixir of her hospital roommate's friends' Buddhist chanting. Added to this, her mother (described as her "first case study") suffered a rare variant of blood cancer, preferred and benefitted from simple "gentle minimalism" over her original favourites, as her condition advanced.

Brandes sought immediately to supplement these initial experiments with rigorous empirical research and quash any claims of her causal model as pseudo-science. This undertaking involved commissioning experts to compose original pieces specifically for the purpose of this inquiry. Each piece is designed to provide stimulus -- through precise rhythmic and harmonic techniques, all delivered in a strategic sequence -- to effectively target symptomologies. Although the music is not formulated for aesthetics, its functionality predicates a certain level of easy-listening.

Although we may be far from actually replacing drugs with musical pharmacology, a neurologist at the University of Sussex suggests that this line of therapy offers great promise as a potential treatment option for depression, in addition to its current successful use in melodic-intonation therapy, used to assist stroke patients in re-acquiring speech through the use of song.

Brandes remains cautiously optimistic about the future of musical pharmacology, but indicates that its advantages as a treatment with no possible side effects or potential for harm bolster it above and beyond the ranks of other therapies, where peripheral suffering sometimes outweighs improvement of symptoms. Music can sometimes mend a broken heart and perhaps soon, so much more.

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